Today, Chris Markwell is the director of asset management for NEXTracker — a leading solar tracking provider — where he works to make utility-scale solar arrays more productive every day.
His journey as an engineer, leader, and person of color in clean energy began years ago with a critical decision to serve.
Markwell, like millions across the country, watched in horror as the events of Sept. 11, 2001 unfolded. The son of a military family, that event was the push he needed to continue the legacy and enlist in the Navy.
“They called me ‘grandpa’ when I joined,” Markwell, now 39, said with a laugh. “Like, I was the oldest person they’d ever seen.”
Fulfilling his patriotic duty was the primary goal. But Markwell also saw the military as a gateway to an engineering career, one that with time would lead him to become a leader in clean energy.
“I didn’t want to hold an M16 in the Middle East. So, I said, ‘What can I use my brain for?'”
He served as a nuclear engineer in the Navy for six years before deciding to prioritize his growing family and blossoming career. Markwell spent four years at hydrogen fuel cell manufacturer Bloom Energy before joining NEXTracker.
During the pandemic, Markwell led NEXTracker’s transition to fully remote project commissions, utilizing teams on the ground in markets around the world. Now, he’s helping the company evolve with increasing challenges posed by weather and climate change.
When asked about his goals for the future, Markwell doesn’t immediately think about NEXTracker.
It’s his three kids — ages 12, 12, and 9 — who first come to mind.
“And, you know, I’m not saying I don’t focus on work. I do. Absolutely. But, they’re my priority right now,” Markwell said.
Three years ago, the world stopped for Markwell and his young family when his wife, and the mother of his children, suddenly passed away. She was only 33.
“It threw our whole family into a whirlwind.”
Her loss helped Markell realize how precious life is, and that he didn’t want to take for granted time spent with his children.
Chris remarried last year and, together with his wife, is focused on raising their blended family.
So, yes, maximizing the efficiency of a 100 MW solar farm in Egypt is important to Markwell. But his priorities center around driving to school. Catching every volleyball game. Just being around. For everything.
“A lot of the goals that I set up are based around my kids and making sure that I’m there being a role model for them,” Markwell said. “I want them to be proud of me and what I do.”
Much of the advice on diversity and inclusion that Markwell has as a person of color and leader in clean energy comes from what he tells his kids.
Clean energy, after all, has a diversity problem. The energy workforce as a whole was 74% white in 2020, according to data compiled by E2. Clean energy didn’t fare much better, with white people making up 73% of the workforce.
At their Albuquerque home, Markwell’s kids work on the ATVs and dirt bikes that they ride as a family. And their math homework is from two grades higher. It seems their entire upbringing has a STEM component.
“We should focus on getting young people of color excited about STEM,” Markwell said. “It’s then realizing what’s going to happen to our earth if we don’t make some changes and what kind of impact you can have.
That impact is real, he said, and it includes a financial gain, which he doesn’t discount.
Markwell has been promoted three times since joining NEXTracker: from controls and product support manager, to commissioning and O&M manager, to director of asset management. In his current role, he oversees project deliveries and helps roll out the company’s latest product offerings — adapting to market conditions and changing environmental challenges.
The key, he says, is listening.
“We met with all of these different O&M providers and said, ‘what are some of the issues that you run into? What could we do to make things smoother, faster, cost less?'”
Markwell teased that the company has “a few things we’re working on,” but didn’t want to “give away any secrets.” You’ll read more soon on Renewable Energy World.
And while the secret may be out on core clean energy technologies that will fuel the energy transition, it may be the innovations in efficiency, operations, and productivity developed by people like Markwell that enable society as a whole–and his kids in particular–to meet the demands of a changing climate.
That’s a professional impact, and personal responsibility, he doesn’t take for granted.